Excerpted from “Witness to an Extreme Century” by Robert Jay Lifton. Copyright 2011 by Robert Jay Lifton. Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in his memoir “Witness to an Extreme Century,” interviews Albert Speer about his 15 years as a prominent Nazi and “Hitler’s architect.”
Three of our four meetings took place at his home on the outskirts of Heidelberg, and the fourth at his isolated retreat in southern Bavaria. His Heidelberg home seemed isolated enough, high in the hills behind the city’s famous castle. I remember the house seeming cavernous, its furnishings neither attractive nor cozy. Speer himself was welcoming but I was struck by how old he looked (he was then seventy-three), by the awkwardness of his movements (he had considerable difficulty getting up and sitting down, leading me to wonder whether he had Parkinson’s disease), and by his “thousand-mile stare” (the term we used to describe the psychological remoteness in repatriated American prisoners of war in Korea in 1953). The word I used to characterize his general demeanor was weary (though I should add that a little more than a year later he was to be enlivened by a passionate love affair with a younger woman).
Speer was interested in talking to me, and made clear that nothing he said was confidential. But he quickly suggested an agenda of his own centered on his bond with Hitler. He told me how he had heard the Nazi leader speak at his university in Berlin in 1930, was “really spellbound” at the time and remained so for the next fifteen years covering the entire Nazi era. His question for me was how, in retrospect, he could have been so enthralled by such a man. He then made a startling proposal: that he undergo psychotherapy with me in order to better understand how that had happened. The strong implication was that the relationship still had a hold on him, from which he wanted to extricate himself. I was much interested in hearing more about his conflict but had no wish to take on responsibility for his psyche. I needed my freedom as a researcher and did not see my task as one of easing the pain of a prominent former Nazi. Nor did I wish to have our meetings structured around his way of framing his problem. So I suggested instead that we explore in some detail his relationship with Hitler without my becoming his therapist. Speer agreed and we did so, but we were able to explore much else that enabled me to relate this strange bond to larger questions of evil and knowledge of evil, and of death and immortality.
Speer explained that the speech that had so moved him was Hitler’s relatively intellectual and historical treatment of German history, as opposed to his more demagogic, rabble-rousing street version. The narrative was one of revitalization: now Germany is weak and everything seems hopeless but by uniting behind Hitler and the National Socialist movement – and above all renouncing the guilt for World War I assigned by the Versailles Treaty – Germany and its people can once again be strong. Speer was then a twenty-five-year-old instructor in architecture in a collapsed economy and he and others around him were experiencing only despair about their future. Images of … humiliated German troops returning from World War I twelve years earlier were still fresh in his mind, as were postwar scenes of every kind of social chaos. Hitler’s words were for him transformative, a message of new hope and a promise, as he put it, that “all can be changed” and “everything is possible.” Feeling “drunk from the talk,” Speer walked for hours through the woods outside Berlin, seeking to absorb what he had heard. He was in the process of experiencing a secular form of a classical religious conversion, described by William James as “perceiving truths not known before” that enable a “sick soul” to “give itself over to a new life.” Intense “self-surrender” is accompanied by new spiritual strength. Speer demonstrated the emerging power of the combination of national and personal revitalization, which I came to see as the psychological core of Nazi appeal throughout the German population.
Speer joined the Nazi Party soon after that speech and told me of his rapid rise within tis circles, first as an enthusiastic party worker and then as an architect. From his sensational early success in designing the light and space for the large Nuremberg rallies, beginning in 1933 (as depicted by Leni Riefenstahl in her film of the 1934 rally, Triumph of the Will), he progressed to the planning of vast buildings, even cities, to extol the omnipotent Nazi regime and, above all, its Fuhrer. He emphasized how, in becoming “Hitler’s architect,” he was drawn toward a vision of personal immortalization, of “having a place in future history books,” “building for eternity,” and becoming in that way “someone who is surviving his own life.” The sense of immortality, which I emphasize in my work, intoxicated Speer to the point of becoming something close to a promise of literally living forever. So grandiose were the projections he and Hitler made together that some of the buildings were to hold as many as 150,000 people on vast balconies in a new Berlin that would become the center of the world, dwarfing the grandeur of Paris and the Champs-Elysees. Few of the structures were actually built but many were imagined, as part of what Speer called “a daydream that was a very serious daydream.”
On one of my visits to the Heidelberg home, he showed me a large glossy book that had just been published, titled Architecture of the Third Reich. It contained gaudy photographs of buildings I noted to be “profoundly vulgar” and “totalitarian,” and Speer seemed initially to share that judgment: “I admit that the proportions are all wrong,” he said, and “I criticize the grandiose side.” Then, without the slightest trace of irony, he added, “But of course it was what the client wanted.” He attributed all excess to that “client,” but he could hardly dissociate himself from the grandiosity involved. Indeed, his pride in the volume was clear enough as he clutched it affectionately and pointed also to pictures of rally sites he had designed: “I was one of the first to use light in nighttime as a device for creating space. The searchlights came so high that when you were standing inside you saw it as being in the stratosphere.” He did not say that his innovative lighting enabled the Fuhrer to be seen as descending from the heavens. I thought of Speer’s overall contribution to the mystical appeal of the Nazi movement, converting Nazi darkness into a manipulated sense of illumination. Witnessing his enthusiasm for that early work and his nostalgic pride in projections of architectural world domination, I felt that whatever sympathy I had for Speer was dissolving. It occurred to me that Nazi architectural hubris had a certain parallel to its biological hubris: apocalyptic architecture followed upon apocalyptic biology.
Speer made it clear that Hitler was more than a mere client: he was the closest of collaborators. Hitler was not only a constant critic and appreciator of Speer’s architectural suggestions; the Fuhrer became himself an architect and even provided sketches of his own. As they imagined the unprecedented grandeur of buildings, highways, archways, and cities, their thoughts blended to the degree that it became unclear who had provided the original idea. The two men shared this descent into a version of apocalyptic fantasy: they were re-creating a perfect Nazi world from the ruins of what they were destroying. It is this merger in fantasy that constituted their architectural folie a deux.
Yet however superior Speer’s knowledge of architecture, Hitler remained the guru. As Speer put it, “I was so much in that ambience that I was infiltrated with [Hitler’s] ideas without realizing how much I was infiltrated.” He said that even now, when working on his writing, he frequently has the experience in which “I see that it’s an idea Hitler had in some way” and “I’m quite astonished.” In their particular fashion, the two men formed a close personal relationship. Speer would later write that if Hitler were capable of having a friend, he, Speer, would have been that friend. But gurus, especially the most paranoid and destructive among them, do not have friends; they have only disciples. Speer believed that Hitler was drawn to him as a fellow artist, and that appreciation worked both ways: “For an artist to see somebody at the head of the state who is something of an artist too … has a gift of excitement. Being overwhelmed by … a Wagner performance or a ballet in Nuremberg, this for me was a strong, positive influence.” They also shared an intense theatricality – Speer with his dazzling night-lighting of rallies, and Hitler, whose “whole life,” Speer told me, “was acting, performance, theatre.”
Speer’s merging with Hitler resembled the kind of fusion of guru and disciple that I encountered in studying fanatical religious cults, notably Aum Shinrikyo in Japan in the nineties. But with Speer and Hitler the fusion involved the shared hubris of a perceived artistic and structural project to transform the world. In that way Speer was probably, at least for a period of time, the disciple most important to Hitler in affirming his omnipotent guruism. But Speer also provides for us a kind of window to more ordinary German people who also experienced fusion with a guru/leader rendered godlike. As Speer poured out details of his interaction with the Fuhrer, I could be there with the two men at various levels: observing them pore over their architectural plans as “friends” and “colleagues”; and imagining their fusion in a version of architectural madness perceived as an all-consuming gift to the world. And here was this man sitting opposite me describing quite rationally and methodically this most bizarre expression of evil from his past – wishing to separate himself from it and renounce it, but not entirely. No wonder that Speer was so difficult for me to grasp.
An important clue to his psychology was the anxiety he began to develop in connection with his projections of grandiose building. As he explained to me, he found himself as a young architect with little experience thrust into a situation without rules or boundaries, one in which “nothing is fixed.” He had no clear tradition or architectural group that could guide and constrain him, so that professionally “I could do what I wanted,” and despite Hitler’s support, “I was alone.” The Fuhrer’s involvement, far from a steadying influence, obliterated limits and took the fused duo more deeply into unmanageable architectural fantasy. At some level of his mind, Speer perceived this gap between the grandiosity of the shared vision and what could be called architectural reality. He also had inner doubts about the quality of the architecture, “fear as to whether it would stand [the judgment] of the times, of how it would be acknowledged in future times.” Related to that fear was his discomfort, as a highly educated upper-middle-class intellectual, among the mostly crude members of the Nazi inner circle.
He told me about experiencing two kinds of symptoms. The first took the form of claustrophobia: in certain enclosed spaces, particularly when on trains, he would feel anxious and would nearly pass out. On one occasion the symptoms were sufficiently severe that there was talk of stopping the train in order to get him to a hospital. The second set of symptoms required no particular locale, and were those of acute anxiety (or panic attack): he would experience a feeling of great pressure in his chest and a terrified sense that he was dying. These two sets of symptoms occurred only during his time of intense, unlimited architectural dialogue with Hitler and what he called his accompanying “burden.” In my work I have related such symptoms both to feeling too much (the overwhelming anxiety) and too little (the numbing toward what one could not allow oneself to be consciously aware of). Speer was fending off his conflicts not only about his illegitimate architectural freedom, but about his overall role in the Nazi regime. Something in him began to doubt the Hitlerian vision of brutally remaking the world.
In our discussions he tried to explain – or explain away – his problem mainly in terms of his susceptibility to Hitler’s charisma. That charisma was real enough but Speer would seem at times to hide behind it in order to avoid the probing of still more difficult questions of his own ethical responsibility. What I believe was involved in these symptoms was his struggle against the realization of the fraudulence of the Fuhrer’s larger vision, and of his own corruption personally and professionally. His architectural folie a deux with the Fuhrer epitomized the problem. As in the case of doctors at Auschwitz, Speer could adapt sufficiently to diminish his anxiety and serve the regime, in his case with high energy and intelligence. His symptoms contributed to that adaptation by covering over existential truths, and then disappeared when he ceased to be “Hitler’s architect” and became instead minister for armaments. Nor did they reappear during his imprisonment or the years following his release … .
In keeping with my concerns about different forms of participation in evil, I focused much of our discussion on Speer’s relationship to the “Final Solution,” the Nazi program of systematic mass murder of the Jews. Over the years he had claimed ignorance and uninvolvement, a claim that seemed increasingly untenable, and toward the latter part of his life he backtracked and admitted having sense that “something was happening to the Jews,” without having wished to learn any more about what that was. As evidence mounted against his earlier claims, many who had been sympathetic to him became critical, including one of his biographers, Gitta Sereny, who concluded that he was “living a lie.” In order to explore the matter with him I pressed him on the sequence of his attitude toward Jews and encounters with their suffering.
He made clear to me that he was by no means immune to the anti-Semitism of the time, resonated to it in Hitler’s early speech, resented “rich Jews in furs” during times of economic deprivation, was critical of the Jewish domination of the medical profession, and, more to the point, of what he took to be the inordinate Jewish influence on German architecture in determining who received commissions for buildings. As he rose in the regime, Speer did not emphasize anti-Jewish ideas in speeches or writings but blended with the existing ambiance, with an anti-Semitism that was, as he put it, “standard” and “legalized” so that “one felt at home in it.” He was aware of Hitler’s rage toward the Jews, but the two men did not talk about the subject during their architectural meditations, or later when they were preoccupied with armaments. But he recalled … how the Fuhrer would, in small groups of his inner circle, “Speak in that cold, slow voice in which he revealed terrible decisions” and declare that he would “destroy the Jews.” Speer even came to realize that doing so was a central motivation, Hitler’s “engine.” The murderous “engine,” that is, did not interfere with Speer’s fusion with his guru; indeed one could say that the fusion required that he himself connect in someway with the engine.
Speer admitted to me that he encountered considerable evidence of Nazi brutality and Jewish pain: the suicide of a distinguished scientist his family knew at the University of Heidelberg, a scene at a railroad station in which a few hundred “miserable looking people” he knew to be Jews were “loaded on trains to be taken from Germany,” and selective tours of Nazi concentration camps in which he claimed to be convinced by his manipulative hosts that the inmates were in reasonably good shape. More damning, he told me of providing certain materials for the work camp at Auschwitz in 1943 and having at the time “some insight into the bad conditions of such camps.” But he insisted that the construction materials were only for improving the facilities, and when I asked about his knowledge of the rest of Auschwitz and its role in extermination, he insisted sharply that “I knew nothing of the other.” I had never before heard anyone claim in this way close knowledge of the slave labor function of Auschwitz and ignorance of its function as a death camp. (Nor did we discuss Speer’s early participation in removing Jews from their Berlin homes and later suppression of that episode, or his providing, as minister of armaments, slave labor to German industry.)
Speer told me how he “pushed aside very quickly” all such matters, sensing that dreadful things were happening to Jews but stopping short of fully realizing what they were because “I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to see it.” Very much at issue was his sense that confronting the truth would have undermined his entire Nazi worldview and deepest life commitments and required him “to admit that all this was for nothing, that it wasn’t right.” At the end of our third interview I noted that one had two choices with Speer: either one could believe that he was consciously lying all along, or one could see him as involved in a sustained inner struggle around the psychology of knowing and now knowing. I favored the latter view. I thought he was “living a lie” but that he had not experienced it as a lie. Because of his extreme psychic numbing, he had ceased to feel almost anything of the abuse and suffering of Jews. And because of his “derealization” (emphasized by Mitscherlich in connection with Nazi behavior), he could avoid experiencing his participation in the Holocaust as actual or real. Speer could explore his participation in a regime he now condemned but could never allow himself to experience the dimension of guilt associated with its mass killing. Therefore, he could never allow himself fully “to know.” His wish to focus exclusively on his emotional bondage to Hitler – and with my help find a “cure” for it – was an effort to psychologize his Nazi behavior in a way that avoided ethical truths. None of this makes him any less culpable for what he did and did not do, but it does help explain his contradictory statements about what he knew.
Throughout, I had been more critical of Speer and more reserved about his “repentance” than had such people as Alexander Mitscherlich, George Mosse (a scholar whom I knew and greatly respected), and Erich Fromm (the well-known psychoanalyst who befriended Speer and expressed great enthusiasm for his change). Still, I had conversed with him in a civil, even friendly fashion, finding him at least at moments likable, and had been impressed by the fact that someone so high in the regime was making this kind of articulate turnabout – even if Hitler was always there with us. I concluded that our interviews had revealed extraordinary dimensions of enthusiasm and corruption, of complex immersion in evil – and that to learn about all this I had no choice but to sit in that room with him and his Fuhrer.